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In ‘Unapologetic,’ Charlene Carruthers Offers Young Black Organizers Inspiration, Purpose, and Strength

Regina Mahone

“There’s no magic bullet,” said Carruthers in an interview with Rewire.News. “At some point, people have to be driven and make an active choice to engage in some kind of way, no matter what that is. And oftentimes the single choice to do something leads to being able to deepen our work.”

One of Charlene Carruthers’ earliest memories about power comes from her visits with her mother to the public aid office in Chicago for food stamps or cash assistance. She recalls entering a “colorful and always noisy” room full of Black and brown women, many of them with children. The front desk “was placed on high, and even then the symbolism of this was evident to me, and I found the arrangement uncomfortable and odd,” Carruthers writes in her new book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, published last month by Beacon Press.

“I also didn’t understand why we had to wait in a room all day for a conversation of no more than fifteen minutes with a caseworker,” Carruthers continues. “I didn’t understand why the caseworker asked my mother invasive questions about my very present father. I didn’t know the government viewed Black fathers as a barrier to need and Black mothers as unworthy of dignified treatment.”

This experience was one of many that left an imprint on Carruthers as she came to understand the impact of anti-Blackness, patriarchy, and capitalism in the United States and around the world. But it was social justice movement work that showed the Chicago-based organizer, who would serve as founding national director of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), how to “think more expansively about Black freedom and collective liberation.”

In that spirit, Unapologetic offers Black organizers a framework from which to draw inspiration, purpose, and strength. It stands apart from other books about movement work by offering guidance to Black youth organizers who are in today’s liberation movement, or who are seeking to join or learn more about it and its Black queer feminist praxis from one of its progenitors.

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As historian and longtime political activist Barbara Ransby—who co-founded the Chicago-based Black Radical Congress in the late 1990s—argues in her new book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century, “This is the first time in the history of U.S. social movements that Black feminist politics have defined the frame for a multi-issue, Black-led mass struggle that did not primarily or exclusively focus on women.”

BYP100 is a member-based organization for Black youth between the ages of 18 and 35 focused on transformative leadership development, direct action organizing, advocacy, and education. Like Black Lives Matter, BYP100 was originally a hashtag—in this case, for the 2013 “Beyond November Movement Convening” developed by longtime Black feminist activist and political scientist Cathy Cohen. Created after the acquittal of the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the organization has led some of the most significant actions defending the dignity of Black people, such as the #StoptheCops and #FundBlackFutures campaigns; it currently has chapters in Chicago, D.C., Detroit, Durham (NC), Jackson (MS), New Orleans, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, along with a national membership for young people who are outside of those regions.

The sole staff member for the organization’s first year after leading grassroots and digital strategy campaigns for Color of Change and the Women’s Media Center—among other national groups—Carruthers unpacks in her book BYP100’s Black queer feminist (BQF) organizing lens. Drawing inspiration from such luminaries as Ella Baker, Barbara Smith, and the Combahee River Collective, she defines it as a “political praxis (practice and theory) based in Black feminist and LGBTQ traditions and knowledge, through which people and groups see to bring their full selves into the process of dismantling all systems of oppression.” This lens enables BYP100 to create “alternatives of self-governance and self-determination” and through its application while organizing, members are able to “more effectively prioritize problems and methods that center historically marginalized people in our communities.”

Carruthers provides numerous examples of the BQF lens in practice throughout the book. One example that stands out is BYP100’s holistic response to an allegation of sexual assault involving one of its leaders. As has been acknowledged publicly, a visible leader in BYP100 Chicago, Malcolm London, was accused of sexually assaulting a young Black woman identified as Kyra. Rather than forcing London from the organization, the BYP100 community facilitated a “survivor-led process of transformative justice” with London and Kyra, led by experts in that process, while the organization placed London on hiatus and underwent internal changes “to address and prevent harm within our organization.”

“While BYP100 had not even existed when the assault took place, our organization and its leaders chose to be accountable to the survivor and broader community. In the … transformative justice process, I came to realize what it meant to embody Black queer feminism as a praxis.” That meant not disowning members, but instead practicing compassion for their community. “All too often our responses to our people mirror our responses to the state. Our comrades should not become our targets,” Carruthers writes.

It’s not a perfect lens—it’s “full of contradictions because we are working to practice and explain what it means”—but the takeaway here is the extraordinary possibilities for radical transformation when using a framework that expands what many people see as responses to violence, even when it involves an accusation brought against one of their own comrades. “Did we set ourselves up for failure by opening a space that espouses values no one can completely live up to? I can accept that,” Carruthers writes. “We are fighting for our lives against formidable enemies, but we are optimistic and steadfast in the idea that we can lean to treat each other better.”

When asked how the BQF lens has transformed her personally, Carruthers explained to Rewire.News in a recent phone interview, “It allows me to think much more expansively and not to move out of a spirit of scarcity but a spirit of abundance and thinking about all the possibilities that we have before us. Queer politics, at least radical queer politics, are about expansiveness, about imagination, and about possibility.”

Another example of Black queer feminist organizing in practice is the May 2015 national day of action raising awareness of police violence against Black women and girls. The action kicked off at the time that Chicago organizers were calling for the firing of officer Dante Servin, who fatally shot 22-year-old Rekia Boyd but remained on the city’s payroll three years after her killing. During Servin’s trial, Boyd’s mom, Angela Helton, said to Carruthers “in a voice heavy with grief, ‘They never talk about the women and girls.’”

That planted a seed in the organizer’s mind that was swiftly followed by support from BYP100 and other organizations to organize a national day of action, in coordination with the release of the African American Policy Forum’s groundbreaking report Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women. “Together we wove a narrative about the impact of policing Black women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people that changed how everyday people understood the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter.”

It is in the “Reviving the Black Radical Imagination” chapter that the author reminds readers how Black people have always found a way to see beyond the violence inflicted upon them. She discusses an analogy shared by the legendary Cicely Tyson of a ladder that represents the world’s social order and places Black women below white men, white women, and Black men, on the last rung. Black women “are being trampled on by all those three above, and still we hold on. That’s our strength. That’s the reason we survive—because we will not let go of that rung,” said the actor.

Carruthers diverges from Tyson on the part about whether holding on is Black women’s strength. “The killing of the Black imagination, I believe, tells us that we must rise only as far as the world will allow us,” she writes. “But I argue that Black women have always demanded and done more.”

“We’ve never accepted that the bottom rung is where we will remain. And that’s where the Black imagination lives. It lives in our ability to create alternatives, whether those are alternative economies, alternative family structures, or something else entirely,” writes Carruthers.

This space where the Black imagination lives is where tools for collective liberation are born, Carruthers explains. It’s where strategies are designed to create transformative change, “meaning change that dismantles oppressive systems and fundamentally shifts power into the hands of communities.” Carruthers writes that this change takes time, but notes a shift is under way and it is very clearly being led by young Black abolitionists.

When Rewire.News spoke with her on the phone about maintaining radical imagination amid darkness, she explained: “I’m not free of sadness, free of anxiety, free of despair. That stuff is super present for me. It’s about moving through that and not getting stuck in it. And the only way I’m not able to get stuck—the only reason I’m not always stuck in it—is because I’m connected to other people doing the work.”

“There’s no magic bullet. I don’t have some spell or incantation to tell people. There’s no secret sauce,” said Carruthers. “At some point, people have to be driven and make an active choice to engage in some kind of way, no matter what that is. And oftentimes the single choice to do something leads to being able to deepen our work.”

Collective action over individualism is a crucial precursor to collective liberation. “There are things that we could do as individuals and there are things that we can only do as a collective group of people, and creating transformative change is one of those things,” she said.

The idea that change is not only possible but in our control may seem suspect to individuals who are struggling to see themselves as enough, often as a consequence of those with power doing the most to kill Black imagination and self-determination. For young Black people, Carruthers had this to say: “First, know that we live in a world that tells us every single day that we are not enough: We don’t have the right body, we don’t have the right ideas, we don’t have the right amount of money, we don’t come from the right kind of family. And yet we still persist. And while there are people who tell you that you are not enough, there is someone around the corner who absolutely believes that you are enough.”

“And so we quite frankly have to find our people. Find our people, find our village.”

BYP100 is one such village. And after five years, Carruthers is transitioning out from her national director position and welcoming two co-directors, Janaé Bonsu and D’atra “Dee Dee” Jackson.

Regeneration is a common theme throughout Unapologetic. Carruthers addresses the concept directly in the “Three Commitments” chapter, in which she invites organizers to take up “adopting healing justice as a core organizing value and practice,” “combating liberalism with principled struggle,” and “building many strong leaders.” These three practices can enable movements to “cultivate radical and even revolutionary means for liberation,” Carruthers argues. Within this chapter, she reminds readers about the importance of doing self-work and healing to create more effective movements, as well as snuffing out harmful liberalism practices that “do harm without consequence,” such as allowing people and organizations to identify as “progressive” without committing to “ensuring reproductive freedom or ending mass incarceration or poverty,” or “allows so-called progressive elected officials to fund wars but vote no on immigrant rights.”

When asked how she and BYP100 prepares young leaders, she clarified that “we’re not training the next generation of leaders; we are training people who are leading right now. So whether we’re working with people who are in middle school or in high school or people who are young adults … we’re not preparing them for something five years from now, we’re doing things for right now—and for 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 40 years from now.”

Training for people leading right now includes strategic communications and “teaching people how to facilitate a meeting and giving them space to do it. Those things are the building blocks of organizing,” said Carruthers.

The book offers numerous case studies on how young Black people are working to fulfill the mandate for Black people, as espoused by Southerners on New Ground Co-Director Mary Hooks: to avenge the suffering of our ancestors; to earn the respect of future generations; and to be willing to be transformed in the service of the work. At the same time, it acknowledges that the Black liberation movement must continue to grow and evolve, and in many ways speaks to future generations about how the task of reimagining must continue to address unforeseen circumstances of today.

“Nobody gave [BYP100] a plan,” Carruthers told Rewire.News. “We had to figure it out, just like generations before us.” And the same will be true of future generations. Fortunately they have one more guide in the canon of radical Black organizing books to lead them—to lead us—to collective liberation.

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